AD500 by Simon Young

If it's a big stone, it must be Arthur's
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The Independent Culture

It's not historical fiction as such, more a deft and convincing reworking of history in the tradition of Geoffrey of Monmouth. In essence, Simon Young is filling in the vast gaps, rebuilding a monument with a handful of ancient stones and a ton of mortar. The British Celts on the Severn boil their bowls after foreigners have eaten from them, the Saxons break theirs on the death of a kinsman so that the vessel will "die" with the owner; the Irish invite foreigners to suck their nipples as a sign of acceptance, the Picts hide underground by day when their strength lessens, the Loch Ness monster is only a sea-lion.

There are gentle digs at the longstanding Welsh habit of associating any big chunk of stone with King Arthur, at the drunken Anglo-Saxons of Kent who loathe drunkenness. But the darkness of the Dark Ages is never completely avoided. Thus we are told of the raped Saxon girl buried alive because pregnancy was held to be a token of collusion, the Welsh fantasy that they will one day drive the Saxons back into the sea, the famines that afflicted the Saxons, the plagues that decimated the Celts. The Romano-British citizens of beleaguered London are unimpressed by talk of imperial aid. They've heard it all before. In a book where everyone deludes themselves - the recorders included - they provide some penetrating, if melancholy, realism.

I do have a quarrel with the title. The author explains in his introduction to the notes that AD500 is simply an "anchor". If so, it's a very accommodating one, an anchor which lets the ship drift over some 200 years. Many of the events portrayed - the British Celtic disaster at Catterick, for example - occurred towards the end of the sixth century. Why not AD600? The answer, of course, is that a Byzantine chronicler in the early sixth century, full of the new-found colonial confidence of the age of Justinian, and therefore of amused, and often unwarranted, contempt for "natives", is necessary to establish a sense of civilised superiority. But the result is sometimes confusing and frustrating. The author telescopes events with mischievous élan, but the mischief can be gratuitous. On two occasions this erudite author gets the emphases of two major Christian heresies so completely wrong that one wonders if the mistake is deliberate. If so, why? Or is he just not very interested in the niceties of Christian theology? In which case, he is indulging in the wrong kind of anachronism, the one that results from impatience with an alien world-view.

Happily, this fault is otherwise avoided. The world is wonderfully evoked. These pompous but strangely sympathetic Byzantine ambassadors describe with inadvertent humour a world where Dumnonian Celts ask their guests to admire their collections of heads and Saxons answer every question with stupefyingly banal proverbs. The hand behind these narrators guides them with warmth and fluency.